A Love of Learning Lifelong Learning The Classics

The Teaching of Citizenship

“Every man is called upon to be a statesman seeing that every man and woman, too, has a share in the government of the country; but statesmanship requires imaginative conceptions, formed upon pretty wide reading and some familiarity with historical precedents.”

Thus wrote Charlotte Mason, a turn-of-the-20th-century British educator, in her seminal work, “Towards a Philosophy of Education.” What truth these words still contain for us today!

As American citizens, we must understand that with rights come responsibilities, and we personally have a role to play in the proper functioning of our society. In the United States, some of our specific obligations include understanding how our system of government works, as well as educating ourselves during elections to vote for people we believe will best uphold the principles that our nation was founded upon and the system of government that our Founding Fathers established.

We must have respect and gratitude for the wisdom of the past, which in today’s culture can serve as an important tonic against the all too prevalent idea that we are the first enlightened people to populate the earth. C.S. Lewis refers to this as “chronological snobbery,” and it is endemic in America today. This attitude tends to destroy and erase the past, rather than to learn and grow from it.

One aspect of citizenship is to conduct an honest assessment of what has gone before us, and to learn from it. How do we impress this upon today’s youth? A study of Plutarch fits the bill. By presenting the virtues and vices of men, and holding them up for you to see and to judge, Plutarch encourages us to continue the same process, and to learn from history, so as not to make the same mistakes.

Our Founding Fathers were so strongly influenced by Plutarch, and so well-acquainted with his “Lives,” that they wanted sets of this work to be bought and placed in every library in our new nation! They knew that the noble ideas and heroic actions contained within the pages of Plutarch’s “Lives” were mind-fodder for our citizenry, and they wanted us to keep these models at the forefront of our minds. But you ask, is Plutarch still relevant today? Why, yes. Yes, he is.

But first, who was Plutarch? Born in A.D. 50 in the Greek region of Boetia, at a time of great decadence in Greece, as well as military despotism in Rome, he was a philosopher most famous for his work, “Parallel Lives.” Written in pairs of one Greek and one Roman life, this work includes details of the greatest men of these two great nations.

Plutarch is referred to as the “prince of biographers,” and was also an educationalist, with many thoughts on the responsibilities of parents and the training of children—in particular, character formation and citizenship. He wrote to warn his contemporaries what would result if the culture continued to decline morally, and that this “loss of moral sanity must sooner or later cause national decay.” This objective remains relevant in today’s cultural moment, does it not?

Charlotte Mason incorporated the study of Plutarch into her schools, but not under the category of history; rather, students studied Plutarch under the banner of citizenship. This does not imply that children merely studied what it meant to be a citizen of their nation (although they also did that). Instead, a study of citizenship fostered the ability to discriminate between a man’s actions as right or wrong, and it inspired ideas of what makes a person a valuable citizen.

In Plutarch’s day, history was written in the form of biography. Plutarch himself, in his “Life of Alexander,” writes:

“For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities.”

Good character is the foundation of citizenship, and highlighting this makes Plutarch ideal for modern study. Plutarch provides the fodder by which our children’s minds begin to clearly differentiate between right and wrong, good and evil. It inspires children to emulate the valor they find in the readings, while avoiding the poor decisions made by men in the past. Plutarch’s “Lives” furnishes our children’s minds with real-life examples of the formation of character that remains the great desire of parents for their children today.

What is it about Plutarch that makes him such a good choice for this subject? “Parallel Lives” inspires our moral imagination by placing before us the life of a real man who made decisions, good or bad, which had consequences, for better or worse. Reading about the repercussions of these choices encourages our students to ask questions: Should he have done that? Was it right or wrong? What would I have done in this situation? Plutarch is masterful in his ability to bring out character strengths and flaws, without moralizing or pointing to the message he wants you to take from your reading. Thus, he is excellent food for our modern scholars’ minds.

We must all be serious students of history in order to understand the influence of the past upon our lives today. At a time when the concept of personal responsibility has been abandoned for a culture of passing the buck, Plutarch can fill the gap by offering an education in civic virtue. His “Lives” is replete with ideas, such as that of individual responsibility and the consequences of ideas. It inspires us to patriotism and provides living examples of honor and valor.

Turn to the wisdom of the past to successfully navigate the present. You will find yourself surprised by how relevant the words of this ancient biographer prove to be.

A Love of Learning

Honoring the Fallen

The sky was overcast and there was a light rain as we stepped out of our vehicle on December 14, 2019. We fell in line behind dozens of others en route to Arlington National Cemetery, passing the iconic Iwo Jima monument along the way. Our minds were being primed for the task for which we had come: to remember and to honor.

We entered the cemetery alongside hundreds of volunteers for the Wreaths Across America event. We walked in relative silence, which was not the usual behavior for our sons (then 9 and 12 years old), the atmosphere understandably somber and respectful. My husband, an active-duty soldier who served in Iraq in two separate wars, set the tone as we gazed upon endless rows of grave markers on the hallowed ground across which we trod.

(Jason and Bonnie Grover/Shutterstock)

For what did we come? To honor the fallen who lay at Arlington. To express gratitude to the brave service members who are interred there, and to join in sympathy with family members who grieve their absence. To remember the sacrifices others have made for our great nation through their selfless service, and to honor their memory. To thank God for their lives, and to lift their souls up in prayer. Not least of all was to instill awe in our sons as we held up a model of citizenship and love of country by which to measure themselves in the future.

Citizenship. Service. Love of Country. What are they, and how do we teach them to our children? You can attempt to define them, or read about them in a textbook. But will this help children understand what it truly means to be a citizen of a nation with the duties, rights, and privileges that entails? To live a life of service? To love their country? There is a better way. Make your lessons come alive by engaging the imagination, and your children will know the true meaning of these things.

(Courtesy of Dawn Duran)

How? You can reflect on lessons of service by sharing family stories, such as your father’s harrowing experience with a water cooler during a suspected raid while serving in Korea during the Vietnam War. Or share a picture of your Grandpa in uniform, and tell how he often had to manually open the doors to drop bombs from a B-29 when the controls failed during one of his 30 missions over the Pacific. Or Dad can paint a picture for them of the landscape rife with burning oil fields as he trekked across Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

If no one in your family has been in the Armed Forces, then seek out veterans of past wars, and talk to them about their experiences. It will be a blessing to your family as well as to the veteran, creating an opportunity to share that might not otherwise exist.

Poetry and stories are also excellent ways through which your children can learn about patriotism and service. Who can read such poems as Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” or Browning’s “Incident of The French Camp” without being awed by pictures of discipline and courage? In “Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution,” Natalie Bober writes about John Quincy Adams observing his mother melt their pewter spoons to be used to make bullets. Sixty-eight years later, John Quincy would say, “Do you wonder that a boy of seven who witnessed this scene should be a patriot?” Even “Miss Rumphius,” a picture book by Barbara Cooney, is a lesson in service that will inspire your children with Miss Rumphius’ desire to spread beauty to the world around her.

Finally, you can bring lessons to life, making them tangible and real, by participating in events such as Wreaths Across America at your local cemetery.

(Orhan Cam/Sutterstock)

Wreaths Across America is an organization whose mission is “to Remember, Honor, and Teach” by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as at more than 2,100 cemeteries across the United States and abroad.

Our 2019 experience was unforgettable. As volunteers began to clog the roads of the cemetery, they were joined by dozens of 18-wheelers, each containing hundreds of fresh pine wreaths decorated with a single red bow. Our mission was to decorate each grave with a wreath as a symbol of gratitude and a means of remembrance.

As we carried each wreath, we taught our sons to say the name engraved upon each headstone aloud in tribute to the deceased before laying the wreath against the stone. We knew that, in a world that shows increasing confusion about freedom and justice, we were honoring true heroes. Their sense of duty to country and selfless service in laying down their lives to preserve our freedoms are staggering.

(Courtesy of Dawn Duran)

My heart’s desire is for my sons to become steadfast defenders of freedom and liberty in the spirit of the Founding Fathers, who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor as true servant-leaders. The military members who lie in rest at Arlington National Cemetery exemplify such service. We honor and remember them with our sons in hopes that our boys will not become what C.S. Lewis describes as “men without chests,” but that they will embrace virtues of strength, boldness, discipline, and courage that once defined what it meant to be a man in America.

It was an honor to participate in the Wreaths Across America event, and we look forward to doing so again this year. We felt blessed to recognize these true heroes and their families. I pray that my sons will understand what valor and honor look like, and participating in Wreaths Across America made those intangible qualities come to life. They are embodied in the fallen men and women in Arlington and other cemeteries across the nation. Let us never forget the price they paid and never dishonor their sacrifices for our liberty.

Dawn Duran is the wife of a soldier and mother of two sons who has grounded their family homeschool in the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason. Dawn leads classes in Plutarch and Shakespeare for young scholars in the Charlotte Mason Maryland community.